The eagle has landed

Stephen Hitchins looks at the progress of the largest development in London since the Great Fire of 1666, set to include the new American Embassy.


Words by Stephen Hitchins

The billboards went up in Hong Kong in August, ads for flats in London. The promotional literature promises buyers a 'global symbol of opulence'. Whether the extension to the Northern Line will be of much interest to them is a moot point. The developers are also holding Feng Shui seminars in Singapore to attract buyers to the same flats, in glazed apartment blocks similar to those that line urban waterfronts across the world these days.

That invisible Chinese force that shapes the positioning of buildings may or may not have been applied to the 80ha wasteland that will be the largest redevelopment in central London since 1666 and the Great Fire. Ten minutes' walk from Parliament is a vast and unknown area, a triangle between Lambeth Bridge, Battersea Power Station and Wandsworth Road.

It will be the future home of the American Embassy, a revitalised New Covent Garden Market, a new business district, and a new gated world of those non-dom apartments being marketed around the world, the clusters of high-rise residential towers that are financing most of Nine Elms. There is no formal plan: too many separate landowners for that. London's history teaches us that even if plans are commissioned they are largely ignored - starting post-Great Fire with the Versailles inspired scheme by Christopher Wren. At Nine Elms, the so-called creative mix is certainly mixed and not very creative.

Embassy Gardens, part of the Nine Elms development on South Bank, London
Embassy Gardens, part of the Nine Elms development on South Bank, London

Translating a largely unknown area into a hot property, one that estate agent Knight Frank forecasts will see the highest short-term increase in property values in the whole of London by 2016 at 140 per cent, is the aim of Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership - local authorities, landowners, developers, and transport authorities brought together in 2010 to coordinate the ambitious transformation. The mayor was not overstating it when he said this is 'possibly the most important regeneration story in London and in the UK over the next 20 years'.

As to whether a vibrant new community will also appear we shall have to wait and see. If most of the properties go to occasional visitors from overseas then the area will struggle to come to life. But giving a new lease of life to the vast, derelict power station site with shops, restaurants and offices may just be enough to pull it off. Yet more homes, 4,000 of them, are to be built along with 325,000 sq m of commercial development, as part of an £8bn masterplan by Rafael Viñoly on behalf of a Malaysian consortium. The Electric Boulevard linking the Northern Line extension to the Power Station features buildings by Foster and Frank Gehry.

It will be Gehry's first building in London and the first in the UK since his vision for Brighton's seafront was called off in 2008. As the designs prompt the inevitable question as to whether starchitecture is all it is cracked up to be, we must hope that Gehry's Battersea towers go as smoothly as its proposed titanium facades.

Among the individual buildings that prominent practices have been commissioned to design for the Nine Elms development is the rectangular Bondway tower (pictured centre left), by KPF
Among the individual buildings that prominent practices have been commissioned to design for the Nine Elms development is the rectangular Bondway tower, by KPF

In a city of a chronic shortage in housing, rising rents, housing waiting lists, right-to-buy and welfare cuts, the whole thing seems insensitive. And as Nine Elms is architecturally uninspiring we appear to be heading for disappointment. As for the rest, the FT reported in July that as many as a third of homes for sale in Nine Elms were resales of unbuilt, high-rise, apartments as speculative investors, the original off-plan buyers, were heading for the exit.

The site's Vauxhall Tower was nominated for the Carbuncle Cup in 2014 (and then renamed St George Wharf Tower). With offices just upriver from the site, Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners is responsible for Riverlight, 98,015 sq m of residential towers at a building cost of £200m; a scheme not dissimilar to the practice's One Hyde Park and NEO Bankside -- enclaves for the internationally rich. The cheapest flats in Riverside go from £550,000.

There is very little public money going into this project. Wandsworth Council will gain more than £40m from the profit-sharing deal it struck from the Embassy Gardens development alone. Ballymore, developer of this 6ha part of the site, hired a roster of names for its part of the project, including Terry Farrell and Partners for its masterplan, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Fielden Clegg Bradley, and FLACQ for buildings 'strongly influenced by the architectural style of New York's Meatpacking District and London's Victorian and Edwardian mansion blocks', according to the Nine Elms' website.

Embassy Gardens is planned to be a mix of high-end apartments, shops restaurants and offices
Embassy Gardens is planned to be a mix of high-end apartments, shops restaurants and offices

In one of the first reviews done by CABE after its merger with the Design Council, concerns were raised over the scheme's appearance for which amendments were called. Yet, sadly, in terms of design, Embassy Gardens will just about be a suitable match for the Legoland architecture of MI6 down river.

Embassy Gardens effectively encircles the new American Embassy. Its relocation was the key to unlocking the potential for development of the whole site, but its design was described by the Economist as 'a hedgehog crossed with a fortress and surrounded by a moat'. Designed according to the USA State Department to 'reflect the values of the American people', it is far from subtle.

But then, it is impossible to miss the present American Embassy, hulking menacingly in genteel Mayfair with all the subtlety of a man wearing sunglasses and body armour to tea at the Ritz. It is the only building in the immediate area surrounded by chain-link fences, patrolled by armed guards and protected by concrete barriers. The siege mentality has made it into an armed camp. Was it really only five years ago that the American chargé told anyone who complained that the lease expired in 2953 and 'we plan to stay until the end of that lease'. Well, things have turned out differently.

Following a limited architectural competition the building, designed by Eero Saarinen & Associates/YRM, was completed in 1960. With mullions in gold anodized aluminium and clad primarily in Portland Stone, the building is topped off by an 11.27m-wide eagle created by Theodore Roszak. The artist's most controversial work, it was criticised by the press and parliamentarians alike as 'too big, too gaudy, and too modernistic' when it was installed. 'Heroic-sized' was Saarinen's term for it: 'the focal point of the building'.

As the first major American building erected after the Second World War it was expected to be a showcase of the latest in modernism. The disappointment was widespread, the sense of anti-climax overshadowing the structural innovations and well-crafted details. Criticism of the fortified impact of its classical monumentality was the inevitable outcome of recent experience with totalitarian states. Architect Peter Smithson for one commented: 'Now monuments are out of favour in Europe... and there is some puzzlement why America - the idea of which we admire without reservation - should have produced such things.' Walter Gropius had spoken on the same theme. JM Richards, the Times architecture correspondent, failed to appreciate the honest structural expression in the building, causing Saarinen to tell him that 'the facade one sees is the bones of the building'.

Symbolic of arrogance and excess , it became the focal point of anti-Vietnam war protest in London in 1968. When 8,000 people marched from a rally in Trafalgar Square to be met by 1,000 policemen, it resulted in many being arrested, 86 injured and 50 taken to hospital.

The siege mentality of half a century ago is a reminder of the constant need to protect embassies, while sadly acknowledging that today all foreigners are regarded with suspicion.

The building in Grosvenor Square has been sold to Qatar, and the competition for the new building was won by American practice Kieran Timberlake beating the internationally famous Morphosis, Richard Meier and Pei Cobb Freed. It is said, and was reported at the time, that Richard Rogers and Peter Palumbo both argued against the selection in favour of more sophisticated designs. They appear to have considered the proposal by Thom Mayne of Morphosis to be 'touched by genius'. And this at a time when American Secretary of State John Kerry has said he 'cringed at the sight of some recent embassies'.

Due to be finished in 2017, it raises all sorts of questions about how can we build embassies that reflect the core values of democracy - transparency, openness, and equality, and at the same time create buildings that are welcoming, secure, and highly sustainable. How can we do it with energy efficiency and how do we accept that we cannot please everyone all the time when faced with such a project? How, for example, does this compare to ABK's embassy for the UK in Moscow that slots comfortably in between some Stalinist structures along the riverbank, or Michael Wilford's effort on the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin for the UK that is just great for parties, but the triangular offices made space planning a tad difficult.

In the light of the 'war on terror' and its repercussions, with the continuing impact of the invasion of Iraq, American embassies have become well and truly fortified, nowhere more so than the new embassy in Baghdad. The old building was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, he of the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, the Fondation Maeght in the South of France, and the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Expo of 1937. The new building in Baghdad is set to be the most lavish, least-welcoming compound in the world.

Fresh from the Schlitterbahn Village in Kansas (a 'vacation destination resort'), and the First Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas (whose master plan included a sports pavilion, camping ground, auditorium and prayer garden) comes architecture practice Berger Devine Yaeger, part of the Louis Berger Group.

This will be the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, costing around $1bn to build and $1bn a year to run. It is on a site as large as the Vatican City, and will be home to a mere 5,500 staff. The 42ha site includes some 20 buildings, 600 apartments, a bomb-resistant recreation centre, and a food court that would not look too small in a shopping mall.

There is a total disconnect between this massive exercise in New American Bunker-Modern and the streets outside in the real world. The difference between the world as it was in the planning stage and the world as it is now, appears to have passed by everyone concerned. Is a luxurious compound in a country in the middle of a civil war at all appropriate? As to whether the country appreciates the message that this sends to the local population is also unclear.

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations is building Fortress America around the world. These embassies really are bunkers, they are not inviting, if anything they appear hostile. They are enclaves shored up against the communities in which they are located. But the staff are targets and the American State Department has a duty to protect them. The needs of protection inevitably limit their horizons at a time when globalisation has diminished their role. Meanwhile, British embassies have become little more than permanent trade delegations.

Security is a requirement and a curse. If you have a worldwide role you need to be able to service it, and have the tools to pursue your aims. In Baghdad, flak jackets and helmets are required when moving between buildings within the compound. There are 151 shelters dotted around the site should the need arise. Interaction with the locals is not easily facilitated in such an atmosphere.

Never let it be said that the Sate Department does not learn from history. The helipad installed in Baghdad is a reminder of the exit of embassy staff following the American defeat in Vietnam. The embassy construction programme of the Fifties, when no country was deemed too small or insignificant to have an American embassy, as it matched the Soviet projects brick for brick, is being matched today as facilities around the world are being replaced or upgraded. For upgraded, read set back. The greater the setback, the greater the State Department's level of happiness. (That said, the old embassy in Tehran is well set back, but it is still covered in Farsi graffiti along the lines of 'Death to America'.)

A generous, open and progressive country is, however, finding a building that equates with its outgoing philosophy and optimism difficult to match. Today, they reflect a darker world and different set of priorities. The bombing of embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 set the ball rolling for the fortification of 140 compounds within 10 years.

Then came 9/11. A new architectural footprint emerged in three sizes with superficial variations of colour and landscaping. The results are no longer the product of hope, they are the product of fear. There is nothing at all inviting about these places to people who do not work there. Yet at Nine Elms, fresh from Kansas, Kieran Timberlake has the message. The practice is building 'a new paradigm in embassy design, termed Design Excellence, which emphasises the role of architecture in diplomacy.

This new model seeks buildings that represent the ideals of the American government - giving priority to transparency, openness, and equality, and drawing on the best of American architecture, engineering, technology, art, and culture. Our challenge for the embassy was to encompass these values, creating a strong sense of welcome for the community.'

A new skyline and revitalised railway arches for Vauxhall is envisaged
A new skyline and revitalised railway arches for Vauxhall is envisaged

With this building suggestive of a medieval keep with a moat-like ditch, lead architect James Timberlake has spoken of being inspired by 'European castles' no less, and that he had 'tried to use the landscape to provide a defence against terror attacks, there would be no fences and no walls... We hope the message everyone will see is that it is open and welcoming.

It is a beacon of democracy -- light-filled and light-emitting.'

He also denies the moat: 'It's a pond'. Tough, budget-driven stuff, secure but expressive, 'I'd like people to think it has a gravitas and a sense of beauty... I don't expect people to love the embassy...but I'd want them to understand it through the lens of modern American architecture and how it expresses itself abroad'.

Thus, the potential terrorist target is moving south of the Thames. The residents group in Mayfair are relieved and happy. The developers of Nine Elms are happy. The mayor's happy. The boroughs of Wandsworth and Lambeth are happy. And erstwhile locals? What locals?

The blastproof architecture of diplomacy will have a break from previous embassy designs with 'pillow-like panels of ethylenetetrafluoroethylene'. Timberlake thinks the post 9/11 discourse has moved on. Transparent? Even superficially? The cube? Paul Finch of CABE called it 'sophisticated', Timberlake has spoken of its 'timeless, civic qualities'.

You cannot please everyone!

The American connection to Grosvenor Square dates back to 1785-87, when John Adams, the first American envoy to the royal court, lived a few blocks away. The facade of the building in Grosvenor Square was given landmark status in 2009. The eagle will remain.

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